Overlays: The Value of Temporary Structures

Jeff VanderMeer • June 8th, 2011 @ 2:57 pm • Uncategorized, Writing Tips

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(Critics who use in-progress process posts as proof of anything in finished books are jerks and will not be tolerated.)

Avast! When you return to a novel you last looked at a few months before and you’re like me—which is to say, there might be three typewritten alternative drafts and two explorations in handwriting—it takes a bit to get up to speed. Is this me complaining about my own work habits? Hell no. The whole point of my process is inefficiency. Getting too quickly to where you want to go, getting there too smoothly, is antithetical to thinking through complex issues. You want roadblocks, confusion, chaos, and doubt. Unexpected, wonderful things come out of this approach, too.

But I have indeed spent the whole day sorting through variations and looking at the structure of the 25,000 words I’ve got on the page. One thing that just kept annoying me beyond belief was the amount of really cool exposition I needed to cut to keep the foregrounded story moving forward. This is pretty basic stuff, but sometimes your description is doing a lot of other things, like deepening character. Other stuff just needs to go or be rearranged.

What I did find is that rethinking the structure of Borne helped a lot. I had thought of the book as being in two parts, and the sort of book where you get a lot of context up front. As I was looking over scenes with the title character, I realized I should experiment with a three-part structure, and suddenly the whole idea of what scenes had to go where changed drastically, as well as what kind of approach this novel needs in terms of context and divulging certain kinds of information.

First off, thinking of the novel in three parts, roughly corresponding to stages in Borne’s development, meant that scenes involving other characters could now be spread out across all three sections. Before, I’d been thinking in terms of the narrator’s story arc, but that’s not going to be the structural determinant for the novel, as it turns out. Unspooling Borne-related stuff also allows this other spreading-out noted above. It also, for some reason, now means setting context will be situated more node-like at regular intervals along the way. This means the first place I go into extended description is much shorter, and the space created fills up with more of the emotional lives of the characters. And I can relax into that knowing the rest of what I need is coming later, and isn’t needed for reader understanding due to the new pacing and the new ways in which the past and present communicate with one another in the text.

It doesn’t even really matter if I wind up actually dividing the book into three sections, or I just hold that in my head as a construct and do chapters 1 through 20 without any section breaks. The point is, the re-think has allowed for better, more useful ways to distribute scenes and info, while also revealing what material isn’t needed at all. Something about visualizing the novel as a two-parter was also obscuring unintended repetition and wastefulness in what was on the page.

This is all a very dry way of saying that structure isn’t actually an abstract thing. It’s also not always an organic thing, in that you try out different approaches mechanically in aid of getting to a place where everything in the text becomes effortless and organic.

As a kind of side note, I’ve also had a great time on more of a sentence level applying lessons learned from Steve Erickson’s (author of Zeroville) edits to the excerpt of Borne appearing in Black Clock magazine. In the context of finalizing the piece for his mag, I thought of the edits as regular copy-edits, but in the context of revising and moving forward on new sections of Borne at novel-length, I now interpret them as character-related instead. Which is to say, most of the deletions and changes affect how the reader perceives the main character. What is understated by the cuts emphasizes different elements. What is now brought to the front also creates different emphasis. This in effect makes subtle but important changes to the character…and in charting why I think these changes were made, I have gained a much better understanding about the person I’m writing about, and this also now radiates out into my editing of the rest of the draft as it stands.

The good news, from my standpoint, is that because several scenes now bleed into part two, I am much farther along on the novel than I thought. It means I have new scenes to write in part one, but that’s preferable to being more adrift in the middle. This, too, is the advantage of thinking about the structure differently: I no longer have concerns about sag in the middle because of the redistribution of previously front-loaded scenes into that section. The third act is crystal clear in my head, so that was really the last challenge in terms of how to present the material.

Especially in a short novel, like Borne will no doubt be, getting it all right on this kind of technical level is key to the emotional resonance for readers. Pacing, correct development, managing progression aren’t issues of craft—they’re issues intrinsic to success at deeper, more psychological levels. Graham Joyce’s The Silent Land is a perfect example—if Joyce’s craft weren’t brilliant, his insight into human relationships would be useless, because it would be deployed within a malformed novel.

And so instead of a post on the movie Carlos or another Doctor Mormeck entry, you have this, my little weirdlings. I hope you find it interesting. Or maybe I don’t hope anything. Mostly, I’m just happy to be writing.

2 Responses to “Overlays: The Value of Temporary Structures”

  1. Richard says:

    Thanks for the look into your process. It is really interesting to read the points you make in the second last paragraph. It has me thinking differently about my own work, the notion of success at a deeper level by playing with structure.

  2. Will Hindmarch says:

    This is wonderful to read, Jeff. I’m smarter now than I was six minutes ago, so thanks for that. I’m always worried about structure while I’m drafting, and I think maybe I worry too much about it during the early draft when I could be (should be?) worried about other things.

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